All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front ★★½

Quick Thoughts on Films I Now Have to Watch for the Unwatchables Oscars Livestream (Featuring Amy Hensarling!), May God Have Mercy on My Soul - Part 5

25 years after Saving Private Ryan, it’s clearer than ever that the D-Day sequence is still the most influential ten minutes of any modern war movie— as with any sequence that’s been so thoroughly absorbed into the genre, it’s become a cliché even to make the comparison. (It’s kind of like bringing up 28 Days Later every time a zombie runs instead of lumbers.) All Quiet on the Western Front wastes hardly a minute before hitting all the greatest hits: the emphasis on muck and viscera, the unseen enemy, the soldier reaching for comrades whose faces are promptly blown off. There’s even the explosion that briefly turns the soundtrack into the sound of ringing ears, until the surround sound opens back up to the bursting of bombs and gunfire (luckily war-induced deafness always seems to be momentary). The reason this WWI, German-centric version seems more egregious than other Ryan knock-offs is that it brings nothing else to the table beyond that scene’s carnage-first approach. All these years later, if all you’ve come up with is more “war is hell, huh?”, then you haven’t come up with much of anything.

Actually, this does steal some other popular moves not from Spielberg. Most prominent are the buzzing electronic bleats straight out of a Christopher Nolan film, which is at least good for some cognitive dissonance until it becomes overused. And there are plenty of striking images and handsome cinematography filling time between the less-than-revelatory focus on brutality and gore. But the film undermines even its potential as a single-minded horror movie with all the conventional, half-hearted stabs at being a story of lost innocence or institutional callousness, which are so perfunctory as to be tedious. On the first count, the characters barely exist; the protagonist is no more than a series of pained facial expressions, overselling both his wide-eyed excitement and his instantaneous transformation into sunken-eyed terror (on that count you can add Come and See to the list of movies this swipes from). No kidding, not even 20 minutes of this 147-minute film have passed before the barely-sketched group of friends are sobbing “this isn’t what I imagined” and “I want to go home” while scooping out muddy trench water with their helmets.

The rest of the epic runtime is padded out with drab scenes of officials either trying to end or prolong the war, which again: if you’ve ever suspected that war is senseless and soldiers bare the brunt of high-level pettiness, hold onto your hats. At the risk of making this sound worse than it is, though, I spent more of it mentally making the “wrap it up” sign than actively disliking it. Sometimes the visceral punch is undeniably effective, like when the tanks and then flamethrowers show up as if we’ve penetrated into further, unfathomable levels of Hell. But then it throws out something like the predictable irony of the ending, which after a refreshing fake-out it still manages to follow through with not once but twice with different characters. There’s a feeling that the director just didn’t know what to do to make the material fresh, and decided to make up for it by doubling down on the nihilism and stylistic polish— all without giving up hoary tropes like the friend with the family back home or desperately trying to save an enemy you just stabbed. Director Edward Berger might have been trying to put his own stamp on a classic novel, but all those stamps end up belonging to countless other, better films.

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